A World Where Bats and Blades Coexist

by James A. Bacon

Critics have long lambasted wind turbines for killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats. Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy, which seeks to build a wind farm in Botetourt County north of Roanoke, has submitted a plan that it says will mitigate the worst effects of its 25 whirling turbine blades.

Apex would turn the turbines off from dawn to dusk every year between May 15 and Nov 14 when bats are foraging for food reports the Roanoke Times. But they would keep the turbines running when winds exceed 15 miles per hour or when the temperature drops below 38 degrees, conditions when bats tend not to fly.

“There are proven steps we can take to build and operate projects in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Apex spokesman Kevin Chandler.

Local conservation groups like the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council have opposed the wind farm on the grounds that the blades could cause the death of migratory songbirds, bats and perhaps golden eagles. Bird conservationists assert that wind turbines kill an estimated 600,000 birds a year in the United States and that the number could rise to two million with the deployment of more wind energy. Wind advocates say the number is miniscule compared to the 600 million or more killed each year by flying into buildings or hitting cars and trucks, but concerns remain an obstacle to widespread deployment of the turbines in Virginia.

Apex believes that damage to wildlife can be managed. The company hired professional birdwatchers to log the number of warblers, sandpipers, owls and other threatened or endangered species around its proposed wind farm. The surveys, conducted in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, found that most North American birds would not be impacted. Eagles, hawks and falcons were not seen in large enough numbers to raise concerns.

But four endangered or threatened species — the northern long-eared bat, the Indiana bat, the tricolored bat and the little brown bat — were spotted during the surveys. In addition to restricting wind-turbine operations, Apex proposes to avoid cutting trees within five miles of the bats’ cave or within 150 feet of summer roosting trees for northern long-eared bats.

Bacon’s bottom line: Apex’s proposal is an idea worth exploring. On the one hand, it is desirable to minimize wildlife deaths, especially of rare and endangered species. Wind farms should be held to the same standard as pipelines, transmission lines and other energy projects when it comes to mitigating their impact on the environment. On the other hand, it appears that Apex has proposed a reasonable plan to minimize wildlife deaths. The company wisely initiated the wildlife surveys two years ago, long before the issue could become a deal-killer, and it has tailored a response to the local ecosystem. The solution isn’t perfect: Presumably a number of birds and bats still could die, and the company definitely will lose revenue by curtailing production. But, barring some tweaking in negotiations with regulators and conservationists, the proposal could well represent the optimal tradeoff.

Can the rest of us learn anything from this? Virginia will have to build a lot of infrastructure — wind farms, solar farms, pipelines, transmission lines, and who knows what else — as it to re-tools the electric grid to a low-carbon, low-pollution future. Inevitably, some of the projects will conflict with ecological, historical and cultural resources that Virginians want to protect. Collectively, we need to adopt a problem-solving mindset that allows critical infrastructure to be built while protecting those resources. There will never be perfect, pain-free solutions. But some solutions will be clearly preferable to others, and we need to find them.

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14 responses to “A World Where Bats and Blades Coexist

  1. This is what “green” looks like?
    So how many kWhrs are lost in the down time?
    Why does this project make economic sense with all the down time? Federal tax credits and subsidies?
    I don’t see the overall logic. Who originated this project, and what were they thinking? (I know we never get that hidden agenda- just asking)

    • I had the same question about lost energy production. Here is Apex spokesman Kevin Chandler’s response:

      These restrictions are actually accounted for in our current estimate that Rocky Forge Wind will provide enough electricity to power 20,000 homes a year. We understand going into new areas that wildlife can be a concern, and so we work closely with agencies to develop a plan that minimizes risk.

  2. they’re just trying to find a path to approval… can’t blame them

    if we put the same requirements on other energy sources, what would happen?

    A U.S. News and World Report chart shows estimates of how many birds are killed each year by different fuel sources.CREDIT: U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT

    • Those numbers do not pass the “funny look” test. Looks like somebody said, in order to make wind look better, we need to make up some numbers to say fossil fuels and nuclear are much worse for killing birds. What is the basis? Also they left off cats which may be the highest based on some estimates (excluding coal by your numbers, cats only good for up to 1,000,000 I believe).

    • Remember Larry, when it comes to implementing renewable resources we have to make sure every externality is perfectly accounted for. When it comes to fossil fuels this blog has made its position very clear…let them drink coal ash!

      • Yes – that point is either skipped over or just not acknowledged here in BR by Jim and others who ignore the fact that other generators of electricity have enjoyed significant subsidies through externalities such as coal ash, mountaintop removal, mercury deposition, acid rain, and air quality degradation.

        all of that is ignored at the same time we have folks fretting over bird deaths and “subsidies” for wind turbines.

        I’m no blind supporter of wind and solar – for instance, I’m still not a believer of them until I see them as the default install on many of the worlds islands that current pay 50 kwh for electricity generated by imported fuel oil. when we see those islands build wind/solar with fuel oil as backup – we’ll know we’ve reached a reality that cannot be denied.

        In the meantime – we should be judging wind/solar here on a level playing field with coal, nukes and natural gas – not holding it to a double standard..

        • I don’t want to dwell on the birds, but a couple points on the bird chart (since it is posted above, we must debate the point):

          Very obviously from Jim’s article, impact on birds/bats is a major consideration for wind turbine siting and operations. I don’t think new nuclear plants or nat gas plants have that same concern, for the simple reason that they are not expected to have that same bird problem (contrary to the implication). Keep in mind wind turbine bird deaths are concentrated to a specific local location.

          Also whatever 3-yr old data we have on wind turbine bird deaths, just go ahead and double and/or triple that bird mortality rate due to more wind turbines today and future expedited wind turbine siting. Hopefully there are enough birds, and/or enough control measures, to make the toll insignificant in the scheme of things.

          One wonders if shutting off the turbines at night is actually needed for bird control, or if it is a concession to the utilities who don’t want wind energy coming into the grid at night. But I was hoping wind could help replace central baseload plants (nukes/etc). That necessitates running wind turbines at night, I would think.

  3. My goodness. Spotted owls not included? Next we’ll learn that the snail darter also somehow is impacted.

  4. 600,000 from blades vs 600M from flying into buildings and hitting cars. That’s 1,000 : 1. Please stop. It’s a shame that birds get killed by c’mon! Global warming is the greatest problem in humanity’s existanse and we’re going to sweat a 1/1,000 th increase in bird deaths?

  5. The real question is not so much birds as it is, how much does this facility cost (before subsidies)? and how much power are we getting out of it? and is this really better? or is this a scheme that only works due to massive subsidies and I am not sure who else is benefiting from this project (land owners etc). I have been a big fan of on-shore wind, so now I am wondering a little, at least as far as VA mountain wind. Is WV, PA, MD any better in that wind corridor over there?

  6. Here’s a question. If DVP can use eminent domain for a pipeline why not wind turbines and solar?

  7. DVP can use eminent domain to construct generation facilities, including utility scale solar and wind turbines, but rarely has to do so. There’s always land available at the right price for a unitary facility such as a generating plant or a substation. It’s very rare for any electric utility to condemn land for a generation unit.

    It’s LINEAR facilities, such as transmission lines and gas pipelines, where use of eminent domain is more frequently necessary, otherwise a few landowners here and there could hold up the construction of facilities necessary to serve the general public.

    And, DVP is not building pipelines–that’s another affiliate of DRI that will be building the ACP if as expected FERC grants a certificate.

  8. Your distinction between generation and linear is correct and I acknowledge it.

    but the deal with the ACP being done by a separate entity is not – in my view.

    it’s essentially DVP and it’s purpose is to fuel electric utilities… as well as other uses but the bigger point I was making is that we allow the use of eminent domain for a “public use” and the way we have defined public use – I think wind turbines selling electricity to the grid would certainly be little different than other facilities that also are claiming to serve the public.

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